The “Wittenberg Door Incident” 500 Years Later…

(Preached at Alma United Church & Melville United Church on October 29, 2017)

I should know better than to take suggestions from Marion about what I should preach. “October 29 is Reformation Sunday. You should preach about that!”

I thought it was a good idea, and she sent me an article about the Reformation.

Then I really started to research things, and realized that I’d have about fifteen minutes to make sense of five hundred years of intense theological disagreement, bitter recriminations and condemnation, grisly executions, political intrigue, and war.

Would you pray with me and for me please…

Today we celebrate Reformation Sunday, and it’s important in this day and age to understand what it is we are really celebrating and why.

First off, I’d like to say a bit about what a reformer is, and the examples we have from the past.

Reformers are generally those men and women who, while being raised in and loyal to a specific tradition, nevertheless see the problems within that tradition.

Moses, raised by Egyptian royalty, was a reformer. He saw a problem with the way slaves were treated, and after some heavy-duty prompting by God, set out to change it.

The prophets were reformers, speaking out against the corruption of the kings and priests of their days.

Jesus was a reformer. In our scripture reading today, it’s important to note that he was speaking as a Jew to Jewish leaders. Many folks don’t recognize the Jewishness of Jesus, and misunderstand his attempts to reform the leadership of Judaism with blanket condemnation of all Jews.

When that misassumption is corrected, it becomes most uncomfortable to ask the question, “If Jesus were to be born into today’s world and grow up as a Christian, who would he criticize, and why?” I’ll leave that to your imagination, but let’s not do the typically Canadian thing of patting ourselves on the back whilst pointing fingers at our neighbours, without seriously examining our own checkered past.

“The Reformation” which we celebrate today is akin to those other reformations, but speaks specifically to the split that occurred almost exactly five hundred years ago between the Roman Catholic Church and the now numerous Protestant denominations.

Many people who are heirs of both traditions don’t truly understand why there is a split, but as someone who took courses during my study at Catholic colleges in the Toronto School of Theology, I’ve come to understand quite a bit more about Catholic theology than I learned growing up.

I have many fond memories of my time at Emmanuel College, but perhaps my fondest memories are of a few courses taken outside the college. As part of the requirements for our degree, we had to take a certain number of courses from the colleges at TST run by other denominations. I chose to take a number of ethics courses from St. Michael’s College, which was founded by priests of the Basilian order.

The course which had the most impact on me was one in which we discussed, in a seminar-style class, various situations listed in the syllabus, and tried to decide what an ethical course of action would be for each situation.

My favourite situation was this one: A Protestant friend, who is not a very good driver, is taking a long trip and has asked to borrow your St. Christopher medal. (For those who don’t know, St. Christopher is the patron saint of bachelors, storms, epilepsy, gardeners, transportation, travel, holy death, and toothache.) Do you lend it to him?

The discussion of the Catholic students wavered back and forth between yes and no, but each of their answers had to be backed up by reference to Canon Law, which is like our Basis of Union, only longer.

Finally, it was my turn to answer. As the lone Protestant in the course, my answer was clear. With 500 years of Protestant theology clearly on my side, I proclaimed to the class in my best bible-thumping preacher voice:


Now, I should tell those of you who may be a bit shocked at this that my relationship with the professor of this class was one of deep affection on both our parts, made all the stronger by a shared sense of somewhat whacky humour, as well as the more laudable ability to celebrate and learn from our differences.

The differences between Catholic and Protestant theology, which were brought home to my in that course, do not seem, to many modern Christians, to be all that important. This is somewhat troubling to me, because I strongly believe that they are.

Even more troubling is the fact that many Christians of both the Catholic and Protestant persuasions still seem to believe that the differences between them are so important that they are justified in condemning each other or even killing each other. Christians on both sides of the divide have gone so far as to call others “non-Christian.” Five hundred years after the “Wittenberg Door Incident” as a recent article in the Observer called it, there are still residues of old prejudices and hatred that in the past have caused inquisitions, executions, and even wars.

While I believe it is important to understand what situations prompted the reformers of the past to challenge the Catholic Church, I also believe that when we fight or kill in the name of God, we are ignoring the words of the very God we claim to follow.

So what is it that we need to know about the Reformation, and those infamous 95 theses that Martin Luther nailed to a cathedral door on October 31, five hundred years ago?

First, we need to remember that Martin Luther, though distressed about what he saw, was a Roman Catholic monk at the time he wrote and distributed his theses. Like Jesus, like the prophets, he was trying to work within the tradition of his birth, and only when he was cast out of the Roman Catholic church did he found the denomination that would bear his name.

Luther wasn’t the first reformer. There had been some previous attempts at reforming the church—by John Wycliffe in England, Jan Hus in Bohemia, and Peter Waldo in Germany—but Luther was the first to gain a widespread following, mainly due to the recently invented printing press of Johannes Guttenberg.

Luther was dismayed by the corruption he witnessed within the Catholic church of his day, especially with the sale of indulgences. In the doctrine of the time, a righteous person might accumulate a surplus store of good works over and above those required for salvation. These extra good deeds formed a kind of treasury or fund that the Pope could dispense to less righteous persons, who would then enjoy the benefits earned by others.

The church of the Middle Ages often sold these surplus good works in order to raise money for the building of cathedrals and the enrichment of the clergy. Although banned in Germany at the time, in 1517, a friar named Johann Tetzel began to sell indulgences in order to raise money to renovate St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

Luther’s response was the 95 Theses. Tradition has it that he nailed the document to the door of the Wittenberg Castle church, but some scholars believe that he merely hung the document on the door to announce the ensuing academic discussion he was organizing.

For those of you needing a short primer in Protestant theology, the major teachings of the Theses were:

Sola Fide – Salvation cannot be earned by our deeds, but is a free gift of God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ

Sola Scriptura – The bible is the only source of divinely revealed truth

The Priesthood of All Believers – All baptized Christians are priests. We do not need a mediator in the form of a confessional priest to confess our sins to God.

Luther was also a proponent of having the mass said in the dialect of the people, and of having translations of the bible available to all in modern languages. In fact, when he translated the bible into German, he actually developed the dialect that later became known as “High German”.

He also influenced church music by introducing contemporary melodies for congregational singing. Some of them were bar tunes, and the organ was originally a pub instrument. No doubt some of the more traditional folk complained about this “new music,” because if one thing hasn’t changed in five hundred years, it’s people’s willingness to adapt to the new. 😊

It’s also important for Protestants to understand that the Reformation, as undoubtedly necessary as it was, had some very negative side effects.

Many know that Luther was an opponent of clerical celibacy, and a mere 8 years after the beginning of the Reformation married a former nun. What is less well known is that by the end of his life, Luther had become rather more strident in his views, condoning polygamy, declaring the Pope the Antichrist, and advocating for the expulsion of Jews from the Holy Roman Empire. The Nazis held Luther up as someone to emulate.

All of these prejudicial viewpoints, as well as those defending the subjugation of women, the destruction of the natural world, racial prejudice and slavery, homophobia, capital punishment, and the physical and cultural genocide suffered by Aboriginal peoples in many countries have been justified, and continue to be justified, by the misuse of Sola Scriptura.

 Sola Fide, the understanding that salvation comes through God’s grace alone and not by any works on our part, has given rise to a Christian faith that is often lazy and introspective, with believers unwilling to get their hands dirty with the work of God.

The Priesthood of All Believers has led to the birth of many small, independent churches with extreme beliefs and little or no pastoral oversight to guide and discipline the leaders of the flock. Some of these churches have gone on to do tremendous harm to their believers with extreme interpretations of obscure scripture passages.

And even those churches which claim to follow the principles of Luther’s 95 Theses have sometimes gone astray. The televangelists who offer prayers or healing in return for cash aren’t generally Roman Catholics. And generally those who claim to know when the world is going to end are also of Protestant heritage.

It’s easy to forget where we came from, if we don’t keep it firmly in mind at all times.

It’s even harder, sometimes, to know when our Reformed traditions need reforming.

Is Sola Scriptura truly possible in our age of incredible scientific knowledge? Scripture really doesn’t have all that much to say about many of the ethical questions of our day, burdened as we are with an average lifetime that would seem unbelievable to those who would have been lucky to live past age 50, a global population in excess of seven billion, the ability to totally destroy life on earth with the push of a button, and an understanding of the genetic code for life and heredity that was beyond the comprehension of even the scientific elite only scant decades ago.

Our understanding of what the bible really is and how it was written and put together has also changed dramatically since Luther’s days. Serious scholars of the bible no longer believe that Moses wrote the first five books of the Old Testament. New discoveries of ancient manuscripts have created more questions than they have answered. Closer reading of the texts by scholars of differing backgrounds and insights have led to new understandings of the relative importance of certain texts, and insights into how those texts have been misused by mostly European male scholars of good education and better than average income.

The need for reform and for reformers is as urgent as ever, because the church is made up of humans, and humans, by nature, are imperfect. But our modern-day reformers, of whom there are many, often pay a price as steep as that of those in the sixteenth century.

The Reverend Martin Luther King Junior stood up and said, “I have a dream.” His dream of a world where Christians would not use the bible to justify racism and segregation is taking a long time to happen, but it will. Unfortunately, Martin Luther King did not live to see even the scant progress we have made so far.

Susan Maybe started a veritable storm in the United Church by seeking ordination as an out lesbian, eventually left the United Church, but the debate she started raged on, until in 1988, General Council stated that homosexuality was not a bar to ordination. That reform spurred a split in the church that lasted for years. Even today, there are many members, churches, and ministers who cannot in good faith approve of that motion. And yet, we as a denomination have moved on, and many of us note with some amusement that others are beginning to follow.

Today there is much debate about the views of Reverend Gretta Vosper, who is the author of the article that Reverend Marion sent to me. While many, if not most, of us may not agree with her viewpoints, I think we would be wise to hear her voice and ask ourselves: What does she have to say that is a valid criticism of Christianity and of the United Church. Is there anything we should be doing differently?

Today is Reformation Sunday. We are here today because one man saw something about the church of his day that he felt was contrary to the Spirit of God, and instead of keeping silent, chose to say something about it.

He wasn’t a perfect man. But he spoke up, and he held to his convictions even when he was persecuted. He wasn’t Jesus, but he did do his best to follow the example of Jesus.

Let us do likewise, learning from Martin Luther’s mistakes as much as his example. Let us love others by listening to dissenting views with respect; let us in humility be willing to change our minds if facts dictate that we are wrong; but let us always speak up for what we know in our hearts to be right.